Facing persecution by the Chinese government, democracy activist Zhuang Liehong made plans to flee his seaside village and seek asylum.
“The moment he decided to leave Wukan Village, he thought of the United States,” Lauren Hilgers writes in Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown. “It had an allure no other country could match. It was a country of justice and freedom, a place with values that paralleled his own. He had to whisper when he said it: America.
“He had heard [America’s] asylum policies there were favorable,” she writes, “and he understood it to be a wealthy country that took care of its citizens. Work would be easy to find there. People would be friendly. Some might even know his name.”
Zhuang and his wife, Little Yan, landed in Hawaii in 2014, intending to overstay their tourist visas and relocate to New York City. They knew the name of just one person living there, so they called her.
“I had no idea that was coming,” says Hilgers, a journalist (The New Yorker, Businessweek, etc.), who’d recently relocated to Brooklyn after six years in Shanghai. She met Zhuang in 2013, while reporting on the Wukan village rebellion he helped foment under the online alias “Patriot Number One.”
“Zhuang slowly made it clear he intended to come [to my house], that I was the only person he knew in New York, and he was hoping to stay with me,” she says.
Patriot Number One, Hilgers’ nonfiction debut, is an intimate, expertly reported portrayal of the struggles and successes Zhuang and Little Yan faced as recent immigrants pursing a new American dream. (In 2017, Chinese were the second-largest group of immigrants to the United States.) They settle in in bustling Flushing, New York, home to the city’s second-largest Chinatown. It’s full of dissidents, dreamers, scholars, and laborers—all in pursuit of success.
For Zhuang, who was “not famous enough to receive special, expedited treatment but was notable enough that the U.S. Immigration Bureau needed to make sure it wasn’t stepping into any larger international disputes,” Hilgers writes, the path to asylum, employment, and financial stability is a rutted one. He and Little Yan rent a series of small rooms in shared apartments, supported by her job as a nail salon technician, as their small windfall from the sale of a parcel of land, dwindles. All the while, they’re grappling with estrangement from their young son, Kaishi, left with relatives in China, for whom they must secure safe passage to the United States.
Hilgers compassionately reports their search for community and fulfillment, their struggles with finances, forms, and bureaucracy.
“One of the things that I observed is how foggy the American dream can be,” she says. “It’s an idea of a place that doesn’t get into specifics. There’s this core of financial opportunity—a place where, if you work hard, you will be rewarded—and it’s a place that offers freedom.
“For Zhuang, that was particularly important,” she says, “but I think he would say now, ‘I knew it would be hard, but it was much harder than I expected.’ ”
Kirkus in a starred review calls Patriot Number One an “excellent book” that “makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.”
“While the book does encompass these big political questions,” Hilgers says, “it is, at its heart, the story of a struggling immigrant family. Zhuang has done extraordinary things...but they’re experiencing problems in Flushing that many immigrants do. The heart of the story is their relationship with each other and their relationship with their son, and how they’re trying to reconcile all of these different stories in their own lives.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.